S.O.S ≠ Save Our Ship

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history-of-sos· · · — — — · · ·, the international-standard Morse code distress signal, does not stand for “save our ship.”

Who knew? I thought it did. 

It also doesn’t mean “save our souls” or “send out succor.” These phrases were all created as mnemonic devices to help those out at sea to remember the sequence of three-dits/three-dahs/three-dits. This pattern was chosen as the ultimate distress signal because it was so easy to transmit. It is also very recognizable because it is the only nine-element signal in Morse code.

The establishment of SOS was introduced by Germany, on April 1, 1905. By July 1, 1908, it was the internationally recognized cry for help. The first ship to transmit the SOS was the R.M.S. Slavonia on June 10, 1909.

R.M.S. Slavonia
R.M.S. Slavonia

The SOS code would be a resourceful tool for almost a century and used in both World Wars. The Mayday call from the R.M.S. Lusitania would be remembered not only because it was used as the ship sank, allowing 764 people to survive the attack from a German U-boat, but because it played a small role in an event that had world-wide ramifications. While this torpedo attack resulted in the death of 1198 people, without an established distress call, the survival rate would have been dismal, if not 0. This event was so historic because Germany’s attack on this ship was a key event which would bring America into World War I.

SOS remained the standard distress code until 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. While SOS is no longer the audible standard, it has remained the visual standard for a stress call.

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